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South Korea’s Cho Gue-sung becomes breakout World Cup heartthrob

Cho Gue-sung celebrates after scoring South Korea’s first goal during its match against Ghana in the 2022 World Cup on Nov. 28. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL — As South Korea advances to its first World Cup knockout round since 2010, one player in particular is drawing attention — and not just for his soccer skills.

Cho Gue-sung, a 24-year-old forward for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC, has catapulted to international fame for, among other things, his looks.

World Cup bracket and knockout round schedule

Cho’s Instagram following has ballooned from 20,000 before the World Cup to more than 2.1 million on Sunday, and social media is filled with adoring messages, some asking for his hand in marriage. He reportedly had to turn off his phone after receiving too many messages from suitors.

Hundreds of compilations of Cho standing, sitting, running or just blinking have TikTok users swooning. Videos under the hashtag “choguesung” have been viewed more than 317 million times. One user made a “photo card” of Cho, a token usually reserved for K-pop idols.

It appears his team has become aware of the player’s newfound fame — Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC posted four consecutive videos of Cho to the team’s TikTok account. “They know what we want,” one user commented.

Cho stood out last week when he scored two header goals against Ghana, and then garnered even more attention Friday for an apparently contentious exchange with Cristiano Ronaldo, who said Cho had told him to move off the pitch quickly. The scuffle sparked rumors that Cho had learned Portuguese in an effort to taunt the Portuguese players more effectively. Though the rumors went viral on social media, Portugal’s coach, Fernando Santos, said Cho had made a comment to Ronaldo in English, according to ESPN. Nonetheless, the skirmish raised Cho’s profile even further, pushing his Instagram following over the 2 million mark over the weekend.

David Tizzard, an assistant professor of Korean studies at Seoul Women’s University, said that although other soccer players have grabbed nationwide attention in South Korea — a country where people “have always fawned over those in the spotlight, be it footballers, idols or actors” — it was notable that Cho was gaining international acclaim. “We are now seeing this desire emerge all over the world,” he said.

Tizzard said social media and South Korea’s recent increase in notoriety and popularity have contributed to Cho’s meteoric rise, in addition to Cho being “the complete package, basically.” He added that the soccer star was “performing excellently on the world stage and breaking stereotypes of what an Asian footballer should be with his powerful performances and confidence to push back against world stars such as Ronaldo.”

The sudden fame has sparked chatter over how Cho could cash in on his newfound following. (He’s listed as a Nike athlete on the company’s website and touts Nike in his otherwise empty Instagram bio.) Multiple teams outside South Korea are reported to be interested in a transfer.

For now, Cho’s fans will get another chance to see him in action on Monday, when Korea is set to face off against Brazil in the round of 16.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.

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